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Wild Women Wednesday: Sarah Louisa Dutcher

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Wednesday: Sarah Louisa Dutcher

Yosemite’s Half Dome, the hooded monk in stone, brooding over its eastern end, rises thousands of feet from the ground below, so high that its summit is wreathed in clouds.  In October 1876, three men scaled the mountain face slowly working their way to the top.  All were dressed in woolen caps and trousers, thick coats and gloves, and leather boots.  Scotsman George Anderson, a former sailor and carpenter working in Yosemite Valley as a blacksmith and surveyor, led the way up the massive rock.  The confident manner in which he ascended the mountain suggested he was a seasoned climber.  Author Julius Birge followed closely behind George, his face a mask of strained concentration and worry that confirmed he was a novice at climbing.  Occasional gusts of wind tried to knock the men off balance, but they persevered, finding finger hold after finger hold, and finally pulling themselves onto a ledge at the top.  The second adventure seeker with the party proceeded behind him trying to regain his strength.  

Resting on the summit, the men stared out over the valley admiring the scenic grandeur.  Yosemite Valley had an average width of half a mile.  The great walls of the canyons all around them were seamed by water-worn fissures, down which rivers leapt, thundered, churned, and sang with all possible variations and expressions of sound.

In his memoirs entitled Awakening in the Desert published in 1912, Julius described the process of arriving at the top of Half Dome.  “Anderson had spent the summer drilling holes into the granite face of the upper cliff,” he wrote.  “Driving in it iron pins with ropes attached.  Two or three were tempted to scale with the aid of these ropes the heights which are nearly a perpendicular mile.  I, too, was inclined to make the venture.  It was a dizzy but inspiring ascent.”

After more than an hour at Half Dome’s Summit, catching his breath and preparing himself for the desert, Julius found an unusual item on the rocks.  “I discovered on its barren surface a lady’s bracelet,” he recalled in his book.  “On showing it to Anderson, he said: You are the third party who has made this ascent.  I pulled up a young woman recently but she never mentioned any loss except for nausea.  Returning to Merced, I observed a vigorous, young woman wearing a bracelet similar to the one I found.  The lady proved to be Miss Sally Dutcher of San Francisco, who admitted to the loss and thankfully accepted the missing ornament.  A letter to me from Galen Clark (Yosemite resident, businessman, and explorer) stated that he assisted in Miss Dutcher’s ascent, Anderson preceding with a rope around his waist connecting with Miss Dutcher; also that she was certainly the first and possibly the last woman who made the ascent.”  

Although the exact date is not known, Sarah Louisa Dutcher was the first woman to make her way to the top of Half Dome.  Historians believe the intrepid young woman accomplished the feat in 1875.  According to James Hutchings, a British journalist who traveled to Yosemite and wrote about his experiences, “Miss S.L. Dutcher was the first lady that ever stood upon the mountain.  George Anderson was one of the first human beings to ascend Half Dome and his efforts made it possible for others to follow.”  “In preparation for the climb,” James wrote in his memoirs, “Anderson’s next efforts were directed toward placing and securely fastening a good, soft rope to the eye-bolts, so others could climb up and enjoy the inimitable view, and one that has not its counterpart on earth.  Four English gentlemen, then sojourning in the valley and learning of Mr. Anderson’s feat, were induced to duplicate his intrepid example.  A day or two afterwards, Sarah Dutcher, with the courage of a heroine, accomplished it.”

Sarah Dutcher, or Sallie as she preferred to be called, was born in Tasmania on September 14, 1844.  Her parents, Moses A. Dutcher and Sarah Burchill were originally from England but were banished to Australia in 1839 for challenging the British government’s rule over Canada and participating in what was known as the Patriot’s War.  Sarah was the first of four children the couple had.     

In 1851 the Dutchers moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, and opened a boarding house.  Sarah was eighteen when she left the Hawaiian Islands for San Francisco.  She was charming and personable and very much a part of San Francisco’s social scene.  She was a frequent guest at prestigious parties hosted by influential people in state politics, such as San Francisco Mayor Henry Frederick Teschamacher and agricultural business leaders such as William Hollister.8  Newspapers often reported on Sarah’s presence at various elite events.  An article in the September 11, 1868, edition of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin noted that “she attended the Carnival Ball at the Pavillion and “received a very warm reception.”  “Miss Salle Dutcher was a very charming, pleasant girl, in a blue shirt, white waist, coquettish apron, and skirt,” the story continued.  Sarah was described by most party goers as a “lithe, remarkably self-possessed young woman, with piercing black eyes, and a face brim full of vivacity.”     

By April 1874, Sarah was working as a sales representative for popular photographer Carleton Watkins.  Carleton made his name photographing majestic locations around California.  He was the first to turn the camera straight up and shoot.  Patrons of his work included Yosemite park proponent and wife of explorer John C. Fremont, Jessie Fremont.10  Sarah represented Carleton’s work in the Yosemite Valley.  According to the March 14, 1880 edition of the New York Tribune, Sarah was one of two aggressive sales women in the region.  She was the most popular of the pair and regarded as an expert on Carleton and photography.  “A brace of female agents of photographic views infest the hotels in Yosemite Valley,” the New York Tribune article announced, “one is well-known to every dweller in the valley by the name of ‘Sally’.  Great is the power of her tongue.  To clinch a bargain, she will chat, flirt, dance, drive with you – a most ‘amoosin’ and versatile girl.  Old residents of the valley remark to newcomer, with a knowing wink, as she passes: ‘There goes Sally.  That gal is the smartest salesman in California….  She’s a credit to the state, and the valley is proud of her.’”    

Sarah’s main competitor was a representative of East Coast photography.  When the two arrived at a hotel in Yosemite at the same time, they sparred verbally to see who would call on the business owners first.  “Her rival is a blonde of the ‘strawberry’ type, with yellow hair, who wins much custom by pertinacity and would put to shame a Niagara Falls Hackman,” the New York Tribune report noted.  “And how the two rivals do stab each other’s reputations with innuendo and sarcasm: how they disparage each other’s wares and make bitter gibes on mutual blemishes in beauty and honesty.”

In April 1880, Sarah decided to stop selling Carleton photographs hotel-to-hotel and open her own photo gallery in San Francisco.  Her business, located at 38 Montgomery Street, was listed in the city’s business directory, and Sarah was referred to as an “agent for Watkins’ photographic views.”  

Rumors circulated among San Francisco’s socialites that Sarah and Carleton, who was born in November 1829, were romantically involved.  Carleton’s bride of six months did not react well to the insinuation, and, according to a biography of the conservation photographer entitled Carleton Watkins: Photographer of the North American West, he wrote his wife several letters denying any affair.  

Although there was speculation and conjecture about a sexual relationship between Sarah and Carleton, there was never any question they were friends.  The two took a trip through the Northern California Mountains to photograph the area.  In addition to taking pictures of the grand scenery of the Calaveras Big Trees, Carleton also snapped a pair of photographs of Sarah.  A close-up he took of the adventurous woman is one of most commonly used photographs of Sarah.

In mid-1879 Sarah met Frederick C. Clark, a topographer and meteorologist, through mutual friend Peter Palmquist who was a correspondent for the New York Times.  Peter introduced forty- year-old Frederick to Sarah at a party in San Francisco.  He was working in the city for a branch of the United States Geological Society.  Frederick was described by his geological assistant Gustavus R. Belcher as being “tall and slight with exceptional posture.”  He had a dark mustache and beard that he wore in an unusual way.  “The beard was parted in the middle,” Belcher wrote in his memoirs, “after the style of a German field marshal, and brushed so abruptly apart that each particular hair occupied at absolutely right angles to its line of natural growth.  In fact, he was noticeably a-la-militaire in all his movements and appearance.” 

Sarah and Frederick were drawn to each other because of their mutual appreciation for the outdoors.  Both enjoyed traveling and hiking, and they shared affection for Yosemite Valley and the photography of Carleton Watkins.  After a brief courtship the two became engaged.  According to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, the couple was married on December 18, 1880, by Rev. Dr. Scott.  The pair left San Francisco in 1882 and moved to Oakland where Frederick was hired as Assistant Division Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad.

By the end of 1885, Sarah and Frederick’s marriage was suffering.  A report of their impending divorce made the December 15, 1885 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin.  On January 9, 1886, a brief article in the Daily Alta California newspaper announced that their union was officially over.  “Fred A. Clark has been granted a decree of divorce from Sarah L. Clarke,” the notice read.  Frederick remained in the Bay Area until 1904 then relocated to New York.  The little information gleaned about Sarah’s life ends here.  Where she moved or what she did after the demise of her marriage is a mystery. 

Sarah Dutcher was the first woman to climb Half Dome, but Lady Jane Griffin Franklin was the oldest woman to venture up Vernal Falls.  Lady Jane made her way up the tremendous rock in 1863 at the age of seventy-one.  She was the widow of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.  Sir John and Lady Jane shared a love of adventure.  Not long after the two married in London in 1828 she accompanied him to Van Diemen’s Land (better known as Tasmania) where he had been appointed governor over the colony.  

Lady Jane Franklin was the second daughter born to Mary and John Griffin on December 4, 1805.  Her parents were prosperous silk traders in London.  From a very young age Lady Jane traveled extensively throughout Europe with her family.  She met her husband through a friend poetess named Eleanor Anne Porden.  Eleanor became Franklin’s first wife.  It wasn’t until Eleanor’s death of tuberculosis in 1825 that John and Jane became close.  The couple was married on November 5, 1828.  John received a knighthood from George IV in 1829.   

While the Franklins were living in Tasmania, Lady Jane helped her husband improve conditions for the natives on the island they presided over.  She toured the mainland of Australia promoting the social and cultural life of Tasmania settlement and, in so doing, became the first woman to undertake the journey from Melbourne to Sydney.  

In 1845, shortly after Lady Jane and Sir John celebrated their twenty-fourth wedding anniversary, Sir John embarked upon an expedition to the Polar seas.  Neither Sir John nor his crew returned from the expedition.  It was rumored that he and his men had perished when the boat they were traveling in capsized on a rock and sank.  Lady Jane refused to accept her husband was gone.  She believed he was too experienced at his job to allow anything to go wrong.  Lady Jane’s name became famous because of the efforts she made to definitely determine the fate of Sir John’s expedition.  In London in 1848 she offered a heavy reward for trustworthy information concerning her husband and his men.  The following year she made a strong appeal to the people of the United States to help in the search.   

Mr. Henry Grimmel of New York responded to her call for help.  According to the August 5, 1875, edition of the Indiana, Pennsylvania, newspaper the Indiana Democrat he purchased two ships and set out on a search sanctioned by the British government.  They returned without success.  Other expeditions by ambitious men like Henry Grimmel followed; the funds for each were furnished by Lady Jane.  In 1857 a ship called the Fox commanded by a Captain McClintock returned with proof that the unfortunate Sir John and his party had indeed perished in early 1847.  

Grieving over the substantiated death of her husband, Lady Jane traveled throughout the United States, visiting Alaska, California, and Nevada.  She arrived in Virginia City, Nevada, in the fall of 1861.  The November 23, 1890, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune recalled that “there were very few persons in town who weren’t aware of the fact that Lady Jane Franklin, widow of Sir John Franklin, the great but unfortunate Arctic explorer, was touring the Comstock area.  That she braved the hardships of a stage trip all the way from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada Mountains was commendable,” the article continued.  “Lady Jane was imbued with no-small share of courage and love of adventure which distinguished her husband Sir John, and which finally carried him to his death in the Arctic regions.  

She did not make the trip here in the expectation of finding some old friend or acquaintance, but merely to satisfy her curiosity and gratify a desire she felt to visit a spot in which thousands of adventurers flocked from all parts of the world.  

Notice of Lady Franklin’s arrival had originally been published in the Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper the Territorial Enterprise, “and all in the town felt honored by the visits of a personage so widely known and distinguished,” the article noted.  “Though all in the camp felt that nothing was too good for Lady Franklin, and though she commanded the sympathy and admiration of every one, yet not a man or woman intruded upon her presence even though there was a great demand to see her.”

From the Comstock area, Lady Franklin journeyed to Yosemite.  She had to be carried to many scenic spots in the park because of her failing health.  Once the touring party reached the area Lady Jane had hired them to take her to, they placed her frail, tired frame upon a broad, flat rock below Vernal Falls so she could admire the natural wonder.  That spot has since become known as Lady Franklin Rock.

Lady Jane Franklin returned to England, leaving San Francisco in late 1863.  She died on July 18, 1875, of natural causes.  According to the July 31, 1875, edition of the Perry, Iowa, newspaper The Perry Chief, “Lady Jane died poor in this world’s goods by reason of her love for her husband and rich in the world’s love and memory by virtue of her peerless heroism.”28

Lady Jane Franklin was eighty-three when she passed away.

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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